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Research Review

Teens With Disabilities May Face Greater Obesity Risk

 Teens with physical or mental disabilities are more likely to be obese compared to adolescents without disabilities, according to new research presented at the American Public Health Association's 142nd Annual Meeting in New Orleans.

Researchers found that the prevalence of obesity among adolescents with a disability was 16% compared to 10% for adolescents without a disability. Teens with disabilities were less likely to engage in 60 minutes of physical activity at least five days a week and were less likely to exhibit healthier nutrition habits such as consuming green salads, vegetables, fruit and 100% fruit juices on a weekly basis.

Surprisingly, adolescents with a disability were less likely to watch two or more hours of television compared to obese adolescents without a disability. 

Teens with a disability were also more likely to engage in unhealthy weight-loss strategies, such as fasting, using laxatives or diet pills, and purging compared to adolescents without a disability.

"As children with disabilities reach their teenage years, they are not immune to societal expectations for being thin," said Mia Papas, PhD, lead researcher of the study and an assistant professor at the University of Delaware. "This is one of the first studies to demonstrate that children with disabilities, both girls and boys, are at increased risk for unhealthy weight control behaviors such as overuse of diet pills and laxatives, purging and fasting. Since these children have fewer opportunities for physical activity and may face other dietary challenges they are left with limited healthy weight control options and are more likely to engage in extreme measures to lose weight.

"Successful obesity interventions need to target diet, physical activity, and eating behavior disorders among adolescents with disabilities," Papas said. "Understanding barriers to healthier diets and physical activity for this population is critical to developing effective obesity prevention programs." 

Data for the study was collected from the 2011 U.S. National Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Study. Researchers reviewed sample data from North Carolina, North Dakota, Rhode Island and Delaware in which 9,775 participants between 12 and 18 years of age responded to survey questions. Participants were asked about their physical or mental disability status alongside a host of other questions evaluating their nutrition, physical activity and recreational activity.

— Source: American Public Health Association